It's weirdly mesmerizing to watch Gene Kato at work behind the grill at Sumi Robata Bar, where the lanky, deceptively youthful-looking former Japonais chef methodically seasons bits of skewered flesh and vegetable and carefully tends to them on a pair of charcoal grills until they're sizzling, fat-slicked, and ready to be gnawed off the sticks. If you sit at the bar, he's separated from you by a wall of protective glass like the boy in the bubble, and he's so concentrated on his work you could be watching him on television. It's the sole aspect of this new River North Japanese grill that feels alienating, and yet if it weren't for the glass your eyebrows would singe off from the heat of the burning charcoal.
Despite this, Sumi is the most intimate and welcoming of the half dozen or so restaurants that have opened in the last few years employing this ancient form of Japanese cooking (excepting perhaps the bar at Yusho). And it's definitely the most faithful to the idea that Japanese food is about proper and minimal application of technique on superior raw materials.
Robatayaki is based on a centuries-old method first used by fishermen in northern Japan to grill their catch on communal hearths. This cooking style then developed commercially, most often in izakaya, where items are slowly seared over or around fiercely hot, hard cylinders of white oak charcoal, or binchotan. There's (ideally) little smoke involved and no flames, the results depending on the radiant heat of the coals and careful monitoring by the chef.
River North in particular has, for better or worse, become something of a concentrated robata district, with the gimmickry of Union Sushi and Barbecue, the expense-account extravagance of Roka Akor, and the relative institutionality of the local outpost of Latin-Asian fusion chain SushiSamba Rio. Compared to them, Kato's Sumi Robata Bar is the least concerned with artifice and novelty. It's a small space—a long corridor dominated by the brightly lit bar and a dimmer, more closely confined rear dining area—so refreshingly at odds with the majority of the neighborhood's glam palaces that it could be tucked down the end of a Tokyo alley rather than at the epicenter of conspicuous consumption.
It features a simple menu, too: hot and cold appetizers, and skewers from the barbecue. The latter half lists almost two dozen choices ranging from blistered, salted shisito peppers and heat-wilted stretches of charred romaine ($3 each) to a buttered Australian lobster tail for $18. This range isn't so lopsided, however—apart from a must-order shredded king crab claw bound with spicy mayo and topped with crunchy panko, which will set you back $16. Long, salted shrimp, their heads packed full of rich, red viscera, run a mere $5.
Most meaty items are in the $3 to $7 range, and some of the most appealing of them are at the bottom end of that. So for less than $10 you could feed yourself on a trio of chicken organs: fatty pope's noses, chewy gizzards, and beefy hearts, all lightly seasoned and kissed by the grill. More common poultry parts like crispy-skinned thigh and breast or springy chicken meatballs are also priced equitably. But you will want to move up the food chain (and price point) with peppery cubes of pork jowl; blackened, miso-marinated, pink-on-the-inside lamb chops; and sea-salted Wagyu beef tongue so tender you'd swear it was filet.
The primal intensity of these skewers requires some balance, and the appetizers feature some small plates of astonishing elegance: a dish of smooth, chilled tofu, as creamy as a custard, embedded with salmon roe and tiny mushrooms; a fragile, jiggling poached egg bathing in dashi broth; and thin slices of strong-flavored raw sea bream bedded over fine, firm Tamaki Gold short-grain Koshihikari rice, gently poaching in steaming hot green tea. More ornate presentations like tuna sashimi drizzled with white soy and yuzu seem more like window dressing in comparison.
But you could easily stick with heartier, homier options, such as a creamy potato salad topped with thin, frazzled chips or a bowl of togarashi-dusted sweet potato fries—the white, purple-skinned variety that maintain a delicate crispiness longer than moister orange sweet potatoes do. Chicken yakitori and poached egg served over the same rice as the sea bream is an equally satisfying polar opposite. Yet nothing on the menu will reduce you to a slavering animal like the light, greaseless fried chicken karaage served with a piercing shisito-yuzu paste.
A quartet of desserts from Alinea pastry vet Moé Kobayashi ranges from a soy milk panna cotta every bit as delicate as the savory tofu dish to a bunch of poached apple chunks served pointlessly in a clear plastic bag.
Overall this is drinking food, and apart from a selection of teas served in tiny, clear pots on illuminated LED lights and paired with black sesame madeleines and pressed sugar florets, there are a dozen or so sakes (if you're in a group go for the high-value, 1,800-millileter Trendy), eight wines, and a half-dozen beers, including a crisp Japanese stout that will have you rethinking your assumptions about how such a heavy brew pairs with food.
Additionally there are a few bottled cocktails from Mathew Lipsky, last seen at Untitled and prior to that at MorSo. These don't hint much at his talents, but there's another part of Sumi that does: the 11-seat subterranean "Charcoal Bar." You can eat down there, but the focus is on Lipsky's made-to-order cocktails, and this is his domain. If you want to stray from the dedicated list, Charcoal Bar makes an ideal venue to play dealer's choice, given its limited capacity. Expect an old-fashioned to take a good ten to 15 minutes as Lipsky transforms into a snow blower, picking a hefty block of ice into a virtual sphere while creating a blizzard of frozen shrapnel. In this way he complements Kato's meticulousness. But come prepared to be patient.
From ramen joints to izakaya to comically nontraditional sushi bars, we've been inundated with a surplus of nominal Japanese restaurants in recent years. A lot of them have just been silly. But within that crowded field the law of averages states that some of them ought to stick out for simple, unassuming purity. Sumi sits at the top of that list.